by: Carol Sullivan

The things we carried—heaving medical bags and hopes! To Guatemala we came, nineteen students, five physicians, one paramedic, and four community volunteers. To reach villages in the Highlands that scrape the sky over Lake Atitlán, we boarded a bus or a ferry to set up medical clinics March 3-11. 

Dr. Camille Bentley, director of the global medical track, both affirmed and challenged the group on the very first morning that we met as a team: “Every year I am rejuvenated coming and working here. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a good group of students, docs, and community volunteers.”


Scott Viñas, a Fire Lieutenant from Summit County, Colorado, volunteers annually on the Guatemala trip. He summed up what he sees as the key to successful clinics: “Serve the people here, and they will serve you,” he promised.  


Based in the bustling village of Panajachel, the team saw 550 patients. Guatemalan dress, food, history, and land also impressed the group. At night after the clinics, we strolled among colorful open markets in Panajachel where we were based at the Hotel Dos Mundos, a five-minute walk from vast Lake Atitlán, which is flanked by three majestic, volcanic mountains. The spectacular landscape, vibrant culture, and abiding calm of the people wooed and won trip participants. Clearly, understanding the culture was intwined with patient care.


Hannah Parker, OMS-IV— I loved my time in Guatemala. The country is beautiful, and the people were always warm and welcoming. The Guatemalan culture is vibrant and has a rich history. I really enjoyed experiencing the culture and learning about the ancient Mayans and visiting the Iximche ruins.

When it came to the clinics I found myself wishing I had more Spanish skills. Communicating in Spanish was a challenge at times, but I quickly learned to communicate in other ways. Even without a common language I was able to connect with the patients. It was a privilege to be able to care for the local people.


Cherylene Abalos-IV—Despite the advancements made in technology and constantly changing fashion trends, the Guatemalan women still adorn themselves in traditional garments consisting of elaborate woven blouses and high-waisted, heavy, knee-length skirts. They wear them with pride despite the hot weather, as the distinctive styles show which town they are from.

The women of San Antonio Palopó particularly caught my eye. Not only because they were the first group we served, but also because all women, from ages five to eighty-five, were wearing the same style of attire, and their hair was neatly woven in beautiful, colorful ribbons. Often, patients would come to our clinics with complaints of indigestion or abdominal pain, and a proper exam required exposure of the abdomen. The women were always happy to oblige, but would have to go through great lengths, untucking a shirt, removing money, newspaper, or whatever else that they had tucked into the skirt, and yanking the skirt down below their belly button. All for a one-minute exam. I found the process humorous but greatly respected them for their dedication to tradition.


George J. Ceremuga, II, DO —Passion, love for the people, culture and their language bring me back again to Lake Atitlán for a fourth medical mission, including my first visit to Panajachel. I am passionate about frontier and underserved medicine. Most of Guatemala carries this designation. 


How resilient and happy most Guatemalans appear as I visit with them on the street or in the clinical setting! Universally, I am greeted warmly with a smile. Often the clinical visit ends with a handshake or hug and words of thanks and appreciation even if my treatment could only offer a smile, a listening ear, a hand on the shoulder, and a hug.


In twenty-five years of medical practice, I have found that unconditional love is the greatest healer, and all healing begins within our spirit. At the moment of shared compassion (even with language and cultural differences), I know that the "Great Physician" is present guiding, directing, and most of all healing.


I am proud of the Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, students, and medical team led by Dr. Camille Bentley. We all will return more kind, caring, and compassionate.


Postscript from the trip reporter: The vivacity and resilience of Guatemalans awed me. For example, a street vendor named Margarita lives near Panajachel and sells colorful textiles that she carries on her shoulders and arms—a heavy, lovely load. She walks up and down the cobblestoned main street at Panajachel, often under the hot sun, working some twelve hours a day. Her beautiful scarves and tapestries would command hundreds of dollars in the United States, and yet she sells most of them for $20 or less.


At the archaeological site of Iximché, our group toured Mayan ruins. There we saw four ceremonial plazas, which our local guide told us had once been flanked by ball courts and temple buildings. At one of the plazas, he told us that warriors climbed stairways in a sacred pattern as they ascended to the pyramid-shaped temples. Making sure they faced the divine sun, they ran diagonally. Nimbly, our young guide demonstrated—seeming to skim the rough mud and stone stairway.


Aboard a retrofitted bus, we saw no road rage. On the modern Pan-American Highway, buses would pass one another with a friendly yap of the horn. On dirt roads that barely accommodated a single vehicle, one bus typically would hug the hill while an oncoming bus made its way downhill. The gentle rhythms of vehicles’ horns offered beats to ways of healing and ways of being, ancient and modern.Carol Sullivan